The Washington Post’s public editor, Andy Alexander, wrote June 13 about the newspaper’s problem with mis- and over-using anonymous sources.
“Too often it seems The Post grants anonymity at the drop of a hat,” Alexander wrote, citing a May 15 story where a woman anonymously complained about children.
Alexander cited an April 7 story where an anonymous person is quoted saying something favorable, and yet “spoke on condition of anonymity because he is reluctant to have his name in the paper.”
In fact, while The Washington Post does, in the examples Alexander cited, make an effort to clearly identify why the person wanted anonymity, it shows how freely the Post gives anonymity. The reasons for anonymity were because they wanted “not to offend,” “reluctant to have his name in the paper,” “so he could be ‘candid,'” “because she didn ‘t want to be seen as hostile to children,” and “so he could ‘speak more freely’.”
None of the topics discussed were earth-shattering. And a lot of the anonymously attributed information wasn’t necessarily offensive, candid, hostile or free.
An average of 71 stories a month since May attributed information to someone who “spoke on condition of anonymity,” Alexander wrote. In 2010 alone, there have been more than 450 attributions to people who “spoke on condition of anonymity.” As Alexander noted, that doesn’t include any of the other ways of describing anonymous sources, such as “senior administration official.”
According to Alexander, more than 85 stories in 2010 didn’t even give an explanation for why anonymity was granted.
Alexander noted there is of course a reason for granting anonymity in certain stories, “but by casually agreeing to conceal the identities of those who provide non-critical information, The Post erodes its credibility and perpetuates Washington’s insidious culture of anonymity.”
This is the third column Alexander has written in the past 10 months about anonymous sourcing issues at The Post.
Alexander wrote Nov. 8, 2009 about the newspaper’s problem explaining why sources are granted anonymity. Alexander referenced the internal policies of the newspaper, which instruct “We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence.”
Alexander wrote August 16, 2009, regarding the newspaper’s staff’s disregard for Post policy on anonymous sources, saying that while there are more than 3,000 words in The Washington Post’s internal style book about the use of anonymous sources, “some of those lofty standards are routinely ignored” or “unevenly applied.”
Anonymous sources problems aren’t unique to The Post. StinkyJournalism wrote May 6 about The New York Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt’s column on the same problem. That was Hoyt’s seventh column in thirteen months on the Times’s sourcing problems
The American Journalism Review wrote in its Aug/Sept.2005 issue recounting how The Washington Post attempted to ban anonymous sources more than 30 years ago. “The experiment ended after two days, ” they reported.